Priests and punk rock don’t often mix. As open as I am about my past, stories from that phase of my life don’t often make it into my sermons. Yet this Christmas, I reached way back to high school to tell the story of a brief conversation with Maggie (not her real name). And for what may well be the first time in history, a tale of black leather and spikes managed to find its way to Bethlehem. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I liked preaching it.
We’ve got three teenagers at home which means that in addition to the joy of watching them grow into young men and women, we’ve also had to endure our fair share of rebellion. But as difficult as their angst can be for us to endure, I try to take it with a grain of salt. Because to be fair, I put my parents through worse.
If you’ve seen my Mohawk pictures then you understand just what I mean. My rebellious phase started harmlessly enough- camouflage army pants and some heavy metal sprinkled in with the prog rock. But once my parents announced their divorce things took a much angrier turn. In a matter of months I transformed from suburban dork to punk rocker.
I got a black leather jacket and started wearing the shirts of scary bands. As things progressed I added spiked bracelet and Doc Martens. And as much as it bothered my parents it also made me stand out in the preppy halls of Haddonfield Memorial High School. But here’s the thing about my punk rock phase, no matter how much paraphernalia I piled on, in my heart of hearts I didn’t reflect who I really was. I was really just a poseur.
But there was one kid at school who wasn’t. Maggie was a genuine punk, one of few in all of Haddonfield. Her hair was dyed jet black and her nose pierced which, in 1986, was a MUCH bigger deal than it is today. She knew everyone in the scene on South Street. But her biggest credential was getting arrested. The rumor was that she got picked up for hopping the turnstile of the PATCO High Speed Line coming back late from partying with the other punks. No matter what percentage of my wardrobe came from Zipperhead, I couldn’t hold a candle next Maggie.
Anyway, one day I saw her walking down the hall and noticed that the back panel of her leather jacket had been completely covered with two-inch long spikes. I caught up and told her how cool it was. Maggie smiled and said, “Doesn’t it just make you want to give me a hug?”
A hug? Really? But I suppose that’s was the point (no pun intended). At the time I really didn’t give it any more thought. But now I realize that her quip, “Doesn’t it just make you want to give me a hug?” was in fact an extremely serious statement. Far more than just an expression of teen angst those spikes were armor… armor meant not for her body, but for her heart.
And you know what? I bet it worked pretty well. If someone was going to get scared off by those spikes, well then in Maggie’s mind that was someone who wasn’t worth getting to know anyway. But, if a person was willing to make the effort- to look beneath all the leather and scary exterior and still managed to see the creative and caring person underneath, well then that was a person who was worth getting to know… someone who was worthy of her trust.
For the most part, I’ve long since outgrown that rebellious phase. But you know, as far removed as I am from being that angry young man who tried to freak out my parents and scare the holy heck out of the rest of the school, there are times when I am still haunted by the same feelings of insecurity and doubt that so plagued my adolescence. When that happens, when people let me down or I begin to doubt myself, my instinct is to once again armor up and try and protect my heart against more hurt and disappointment.
I suspect I am not alone. Because regardless whether you were a cheerleader, a nerd or if the only leather you ever in high school wore were Sperry Topsiders, there is something universal in the urge to take your pain and project it outwards.
The unfortunate truth is that some of us are still putting on an act or erecting barriers, just daring anyone to actually try and get close. And it doesn’t matter if we wear a suit, work boots or a lab coat, when it comes to our pain and feelings of vulnerability we might as well be wearing Maggie’s spiked leather jacket.
The only way we know to protect ourselves is to keep others at a safe distance. Unfortunately, if we wear it long enough, we forget how to take it off and how to let people in. In the name of self-defense we drive person after person away. Then we look around at our lonely lives and start to wonder if we really are unlovable.
If that describes how you feel, then maybe it’s finally time to try something different. If you’re tired of being lonely, if you’re tired of being held back by fear, if you hurt so badly that all you can seem to do is to lash out at the very people who are trying to help, if what you want more than anything else in the world is for someone to love and accept you for who you really are, then I want you to know that this night is for you. Tonight, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we are reminded us of the incredible truth… namely that no matter how many layers of armor we put over our wounded hearts, there is nothing we can do that will scare G-D off.
In fact it’s just the opposite. G-D sees through all the layers of our anger and pain and G-D… G-D loves us anyway. G-D loves us so much that he was willing to do whatever it took to close that distance we had created. In order to draw close to us again he came down from heaven and became one of us.
Born in Bethlehem, Jesus joined us in the whole range of our human existence. That means he knew doubt, isolation, betrayal, anger, fear, grief and all of those other terrible emotions which have caused you to withdraw or to push others away. Yet, no matter how bad things got, in spite of all the pain, Jesus refused to give up on us. In fact, Jesus loved us so much that he allowed himself to be broken so that we had the chance to be made whole.
That’ sounds too good to be true. Imagine what that must be like… to have someone who looks at all your mistakes you’ve, at all the people you’ve hurt, at the whole of your messed up and messy life and somehow, still love you anyway. If that’s true then it means is that Jesus is someone you can trust with your heart. Jesus’ love for us is so great that if we let him, he is willing to hug us, spikes and all.
Such a relationship would change everything. To finally have someone who accepted you without condition or judgment… someone who could look past your anger and see the pain that lay beneath it… someone who you didn’t make you feel ashamed… someone you didn’t have to push away. To have someone like that would have to be some kind of miracle.
Well guess what? That miracle… that two thousand year old, heartbreaking, universe-changing miracle, that is what we celebrate tonight. In the birth of Jesus G-D comes into our world once again, and he comes so that you might finally know the love and acceptance you’ve always longed for.
Tonight you have a choice. You can go about your life as you always have; holding onto your pain, refusing to let go of your anger and doing your very best to keep G-D and everyone else at a safe distance, OR…. or just for tonight you can take a risk and choose to believe that Jesus just might be worthy of your trust. You can dare to let him see you without your armor. Just for tonight you can let your guard down just long enough to let Jesus come close, open his arms in love and hug you, spikes and all. AMEN